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Tsai Ming-liang bathes Days in pink moments

There’s nothing left inside him to justify an enthusiastic awakening.

Days: Anong Houngheuangsy and Lee Kang-sheng share a post-coital supper in director Tsai Ming-liang's austere examination of loneliness.
Days: Anong Houngheuangsy and Lee Kang-sheng share a post-coital supper in director Tsai Ming-liang's austere examination of loneliness.

The bad news is that Days is intentionally unsubtitled. The good news is that there’s barely a word spoken by our two leads. Loneliness is their universal language. More bad news: this is the only film by austere Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang (Viva L’Amour, Goodbye, Dragon Inn) that I have seen as yet, and something tells me it would have made even more of an impact had I been able to view it in the context of his other pictures. My predecessor in these parts, Duncan Shepherd, was quick to cover just about anything that played town, with an emphasis on high-end art films. And according to our archives, only one of the director’s films was reviewed in these pages. That’s as good an indication as any that What Time Is It There? was the only one of Ming-liang’s features to get a commercial release (and that this critic has some catching up to do).

It took a few minutes to get in sync with the deliberate pace. (The title prophetically announced the amount of time one felt it took for the first couple of long takes to play out.) Neither one of our principals is called by name, so rather than referring to them as Old Man (Lee Kang-sheng) and Young Man (Anong Houngheuangsy), we’ll go with the actor’s forenames. Lee sits alone on his porch watching the rain. If his subsequent visit to a medieval acupuncturist and need for a rubdown are any indication, the pained look on his face comes naturally. From outside his window, the camera ensnares Lee, a desperate character, seated alone and looking out. Even in more natural surroundings, Lee stands motionless in the frame, the wind blowing the shrubs and trees that surround him. What sets Lee apart from the hundreds of thousands of solitary seniors just like him? For one thing, he has three nipples.

Rather than a fly-on-the-wall approach, our first view of Anong’s one room flat offers a dog-on-the-floor perspective. From beneath a kitchen table, we watch as Anong prepares dinner in a pair of makeshift kilns. Using the bathroom shower, he rinses the leafy vegetables and chopped fish. From another part of the kitchen, we observe him cooking the freshly-washed food. Don’t try emulating Anong’s ability to chop a cucumber at home, unless you covet the idea of ordering five beers with four fingers. The most out of place item in the apartment — a shocking pink dinner plate propped up against the wall — begins a leitmotif, visual music for a film in which the soundtrack is determinedly diegetic. It also signals a steady and vibrant reminder — a pink-lighting if you will — of both men’s sexual longings.

Lee’s therapy involves having smoldering foil squares placed on his back to help smoke out the acupuncture, followed by a rigorous Valvoline massage. It’s the type of remedy that’s enough to make a Red Cross convert out of a witch doctor. Once outside and in the real world, the camera takes flight for the first time, following Lee as he walks through the streets. He sports a faulty neck brace that appears useless unless it’s supported by his hand. (He presses it to the side of his face in much the same way that one would hold a cell phone.) When people complain that nothing happens, it’s probably because they are not using the ample time the director affords them to look his characters square in the eye. There’s enough storytelling going on in their faces to fill four features.

The first time the two men meet is in a hotel room at around the one hour mark. Anong was hired to give the old man a full body massage, so Lee spends the afternoon straightening up the room. It isn’t until later in the day, when the shades are drawn and the sun begins sinking, that the entire space is bathed in a pink, as if to herald Anong’s arrival. With Anong stripped down to his Calvins, it soon becomes evident that a happy ending is on the horizon. The massage is shown almost exclusively from Lee’s viewpoint. Anong finishes his work by joining Lee in the shower and giving him a thorough scrub down, something one assumes happens only with preferred clientele. (Note the way the camera moves up slightly so as not to expose genitalia.)

As an extra gratuity, Lee gifts Anong with a music box that plays the theme from Chaplin’s Limelight. (In that film, an aging clown prevents a young ballerina from committing suicide.) They sit at the foot of the bed, Lee’s hand on Anong’s knee as the young man cranks out the melancholy tune. It’s a moment of genuine tenderness, and one that sadly signals a return to mundanity. The two share a meal, and then we’re returned to our spot below Anong’s kitchen table, looking on as the young man prepares another meal. I’ve always said the only thing more boring than watching a character sleep is observing someone stare at a computer screen. There’s an exception to every rule. Only his eyelids move when Lee greets the next morning. There’s nothing left inside him to justify an enthusiastic awakening. His head remains glued to the pillow as he stares down the prospect of another uneventful day.

As it happens in life, the two men were thrown together for a brief time, and in the morning they parted company, only to return to the forlorn empty spaces they call life. Anong gets the curtain shot, seated at a bus stop at twilight listening to Limelight. A pair of pink lights flash in the distance as if beckoning the young man’s attention. After a minute, he rises and heads towards the rosy glow. It’s about as close as Days came to pulling off a second happy ending. Now streaming at the Digital Gym Virtual Cinema. 2021. ★★★★

Video on Demand and New Release Roundup

Malignant — Pregnant Madison (Annabelle Wallis) returns from work to find the abusive slacker she married essentially lying in wait before the TV. The blow to the head she receives is enough to awaken Gabriel (Ray Chase), the monster inside her, a conjoined demon out for revenge against the doctors whose titular diagnosis unsuccessfully tried to cut him out. This isn’t a plot, it’s a full tilt battering ram, and the only way for it to hit the mark and still leave an esthetic aftertaste would have been to play it straight. One would think that James Wan, the architect of Saw, would have long since figured this out. Was it his time spent at Marvel (Aquaman) that led him to this disjointed slasher thriller, a camped-up soap opera right down to an evil twin and uniformly bland performances? (Madison’s revelation of adoption to step-sister Sydney [Maddie Hasson] makes As the World Turns look like Douglas Sirk.) And must Gabriel, who communicates telekinetically through anything with a speaker, sound like a younger version of John Kramer? Good to see Wan keeping alive the motif of the villain with filthy, mud-black hair obscuring the face made popular in the early 2000s. But at two hours, it could have used a shave. And what do we learn in the end? If a man can do it, so can a woman. A commendable message, but damn if we needed a character to spell it out for the audience. Everything Wan touches turns into a sequel, so may I suggest they name part three of the franchise Malignant Two More? 2021. — S.M.

Small Engine Repair — An adaptation of writer/director/star John Pollono’s 2013 play about friends enabling friends that spans 30 years. A trio of highly engaging reprobates — Frank (Pollono), Packie (Shea Whigham), and Swaino (Jon Bernthal) — spend the first half of the picture showing the world what a fine breeding ground Manchester, New Hampshire is for sexist and homophobic posturing. Each of these boys can tell what’s on the minds of the other two even before a thought has formed. When Frank gets sent to “school” for a few years, it’s Packie and Swaino who keep an eye on his daughter Crystal (Ciara Bravo). The trio of male leads are nothing short of perfect: their wild, free-form exchanges are a cringeworthy delight for the ears, if not the eyes. And bravo to Bravo for the authentic flavor and ear for dialogue she brings to her college-bound teen. When dad cries poor, she lobs a sarcastic salvo, reminding Frank that rather than being poor, they’re clinging to “the last branch of the lower-middle class.” Alas, I wasn’t kidding when I said it was based on a play. Pollono talks a good game, but once we’re inside Frank’s titular chop shop, it becomes canned theatre. Why can’t Pollono be more like Scorsese, particularly when it comes to reigning in the moralizing? Goodfella Henry Hill’s “punishment” is a house in the suburbs with a two-car garage, aka the American Dream. A person’s actions should speak for them, without the film having to resort to a sensational subplot to spur content. Sticking a character in a coma after a nude selfie goes viral, and the revenge theme it fosters, leads to a ping in the transmission from script to screen. 2021. — S.M. ★★

Wildland — A traffic accident ends with the car overturned and Ida’s (​​Sandra Guldberg Kampp) alcoholic mother dead behind the wheel. That leaves the State no choice but to award custody of the 17-year-old girl to her loan shark Aunt Bobil (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and three male cousins, all schooled in the art of strong-arming (and possibly incestuous behavior). But adventuress Ida is the first to drop trou when the time comes to pull the truck over for the boys to relieve themselves. (She does draw the line when the youngest of the three asks to see her breasts.) Still, that doesn’t make her the type who’d ask to join her cousins on their collection rounds. It’s equally hard to believe that her mother’s sister, no matter how estranged the two siblings were, would demand that her niece devote a chunk of her life to crime. Watch what happens. When payment isn’t forthcoming, the boys have a habit of giving the son or daughter of the “borrower” a lift home from school to act as a gentle reminder. But when Ida is used as bait to lure a schoolmate into the car, one has to ask, who’s dopier, the characters or the screenwriters? How on earth did they not see the potential for picking Ida out of a lineup? The concept of a single-mother running a “loan company” out of a nondescript family dwelling has the makings of a movie written all over it. So much so that it was released in 2010 under the name Animal Kingdom and took home a shipload of awards. And I’m still trying to figure out whether to call Kampp’s contributions performance, or to credit the Kuleshov Effect, in which a static closeup derives its meaning from the highly-charged images it’s juxtaposed against. Now streaming at the Digital Gym Cinema.2020. — S.M. ★★

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Days: Anong Houngheuangsy and Lee Kang-sheng share a post-coital supper in director Tsai Ming-liang's austere examination of loneliness.
Days: Anong Houngheuangsy and Lee Kang-sheng share a post-coital supper in director Tsai Ming-liang's austere examination of loneliness.

The bad news is that Days is intentionally unsubtitled. The good news is that there’s barely a word spoken by our two leads. Loneliness is their universal language. More bad news: this is the only film by austere Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang (Viva L’Amour, Goodbye, Dragon Inn) that I have seen as yet, and something tells me it would have made even more of an impact had I been able to view it in the context of his other pictures. My predecessor in these parts, Duncan Shepherd, was quick to cover just about anything that played town, with an emphasis on high-end art films. And according to our archives, only one of the director’s films was reviewed in these pages. That’s as good an indication as any that What Time Is It There? was the only one of Ming-liang’s features to get a commercial release (and that this critic has some catching up to do).

It took a few minutes to get in sync with the deliberate pace. (The title prophetically announced the amount of time one felt it took for the first couple of long takes to play out.) Neither one of our principals is called by name, so rather than referring to them as Old Man (Lee Kang-sheng) and Young Man (Anong Houngheuangsy), we’ll go with the actor’s forenames. Lee sits alone on his porch watching the rain. If his subsequent visit to a medieval acupuncturist and need for a rubdown are any indication, the pained look on his face comes naturally. From outside his window, the camera ensnares Lee, a desperate character, seated alone and looking out. Even in more natural surroundings, Lee stands motionless in the frame, the wind blowing the shrubs and trees that surround him. What sets Lee apart from the hundreds of thousands of solitary seniors just like him? For one thing, he has three nipples.

Rather than a fly-on-the-wall approach, our first view of Anong’s one room flat offers a dog-on-the-floor perspective. From beneath a kitchen table, we watch as Anong prepares dinner in a pair of makeshift kilns. Using the bathroom shower, he rinses the leafy vegetables and chopped fish. From another part of the kitchen, we observe him cooking the freshly-washed food. Don’t try emulating Anong’s ability to chop a cucumber at home, unless you covet the idea of ordering five beers with four fingers. The most out of place item in the apartment — a shocking pink dinner plate propped up against the wall — begins a leitmotif, visual music for a film in which the soundtrack is determinedly diegetic. It also signals a steady and vibrant reminder — a pink-lighting if you will — of both men’s sexual longings.

Lee’s therapy involves having smoldering foil squares placed on his back to help smoke out the acupuncture, followed by a rigorous Valvoline massage. It’s the type of remedy that’s enough to make a Red Cross convert out of a witch doctor. Once outside and in the real world, the camera takes flight for the first time, following Lee as he walks through the streets. He sports a faulty neck brace that appears useless unless it’s supported by his hand. (He presses it to the side of his face in much the same way that one would hold a cell phone.) When people complain that nothing happens, it’s probably because they are not using the ample time the director affords them to look his characters square in the eye. There’s enough storytelling going on in their faces to fill four features.

The first time the two men meet is in a hotel room at around the one hour mark. Anong was hired to give the old man a full body massage, so Lee spends the afternoon straightening up the room. It isn’t until later in the day, when the shades are drawn and the sun begins sinking, that the entire space is bathed in a pink, as if to herald Anong’s arrival. With Anong stripped down to his Calvins, it soon becomes evident that a happy ending is on the horizon. The massage is shown almost exclusively from Lee’s viewpoint. Anong finishes his work by joining Lee in the shower and giving him a thorough scrub down, something one assumes happens only with preferred clientele. (Note the way the camera moves up slightly so as not to expose genitalia.)

As an extra gratuity, Lee gifts Anong with a music box that plays the theme from Chaplin’s Limelight. (In that film, an aging clown prevents a young ballerina from committing suicide.) They sit at the foot of the bed, Lee’s hand on Anong’s knee as the young man cranks out the melancholy tune. It’s a moment of genuine tenderness, and one that sadly signals a return to mundanity. The two share a meal, and then we’re returned to our spot below Anong’s kitchen table, looking on as the young man prepares another meal. I’ve always said the only thing more boring than watching a character sleep is observing someone stare at a computer screen. There’s an exception to every rule. Only his eyelids move when Lee greets the next morning. There’s nothing left inside him to justify an enthusiastic awakening. His head remains glued to the pillow as he stares down the prospect of another uneventful day.

As it happens in life, the two men were thrown together for a brief time, and in the morning they parted company, only to return to the forlorn empty spaces they call life. Anong gets the curtain shot, seated at a bus stop at twilight listening to Limelight. A pair of pink lights flash in the distance as if beckoning the young man’s attention. After a minute, he rises and heads towards the rosy glow. It’s about as close as Days came to pulling off a second happy ending. Now streaming at the Digital Gym Virtual Cinema. 2021. ★★★★

Video on Demand and New Release Roundup

Malignant — Pregnant Madison (Annabelle Wallis) returns from work to find the abusive slacker she married essentially lying in wait before the TV. The blow to the head she receives is enough to awaken Gabriel (Ray Chase), the monster inside her, a conjoined demon out for revenge against the doctors whose titular diagnosis unsuccessfully tried to cut him out. This isn’t a plot, it’s a full tilt battering ram, and the only way for it to hit the mark and still leave an esthetic aftertaste would have been to play it straight. One would think that James Wan, the architect of Saw, would have long since figured this out. Was it his time spent at Marvel (Aquaman) that led him to this disjointed slasher thriller, a camped-up soap opera right down to an evil twin and uniformly bland performances? (Madison’s revelation of adoption to step-sister Sydney [Maddie Hasson] makes As the World Turns look like Douglas Sirk.) And must Gabriel, who communicates telekinetically through anything with a speaker, sound like a younger version of John Kramer? Good to see Wan keeping alive the motif of the villain with filthy, mud-black hair obscuring the face made popular in the early 2000s. But at two hours, it could have used a shave. And what do we learn in the end? If a man can do it, so can a woman. A commendable message, but damn if we needed a character to spell it out for the audience. Everything Wan touches turns into a sequel, so may I suggest they name part three of the franchise Malignant Two More? 2021. — S.M.

Small Engine Repair — An adaptation of writer/director/star John Pollono’s 2013 play about friends enabling friends that spans 30 years. A trio of highly engaging reprobates — Frank (Pollono), Packie (Shea Whigham), and Swaino (Jon Bernthal) — spend the first half of the picture showing the world what a fine breeding ground Manchester, New Hampshire is for sexist and homophobic posturing. Each of these boys can tell what’s on the minds of the other two even before a thought has formed. When Frank gets sent to “school” for a few years, it’s Packie and Swaino who keep an eye on his daughter Crystal (Ciara Bravo). The trio of male leads are nothing short of perfect: their wild, free-form exchanges are a cringeworthy delight for the ears, if not the eyes. And bravo to Bravo for the authentic flavor and ear for dialogue she brings to her college-bound teen. When dad cries poor, she lobs a sarcastic salvo, reminding Frank that rather than being poor, they’re clinging to “the last branch of the lower-middle class.” Alas, I wasn’t kidding when I said it was based on a play. Pollono talks a good game, but once we’re inside Frank’s titular chop shop, it becomes canned theatre. Why can’t Pollono be more like Scorsese, particularly when it comes to reigning in the moralizing? Goodfella Henry Hill’s “punishment” is a house in the suburbs with a two-car garage, aka the American Dream. A person’s actions should speak for them, without the film having to resort to a sensational subplot to spur content. Sticking a character in a coma after a nude selfie goes viral, and the revenge theme it fosters, leads to a ping in the transmission from script to screen. 2021. — S.M. ★★

Wildland — A traffic accident ends with the car overturned and Ida’s (​​Sandra Guldberg Kampp) alcoholic mother dead behind the wheel. That leaves the State no choice but to award custody of the 17-year-old girl to her loan shark Aunt Bobil (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and three male cousins, all schooled in the art of strong-arming (and possibly incestuous behavior). But adventuress Ida is the first to drop trou when the time comes to pull the truck over for the boys to relieve themselves. (She does draw the line when the youngest of the three asks to see her breasts.) Still, that doesn’t make her the type who’d ask to join her cousins on their collection rounds. It’s equally hard to believe that her mother’s sister, no matter how estranged the two siblings were, would demand that her niece devote a chunk of her life to crime. Watch what happens. When payment isn’t forthcoming, the boys have a habit of giving the son or daughter of the “borrower” a lift home from school to act as a gentle reminder. But when Ida is used as bait to lure a schoolmate into the car, one has to ask, who’s dopier, the characters or the screenwriters? How on earth did they not see the potential for picking Ida out of a lineup? The concept of a single-mother running a “loan company” out of a nondescript family dwelling has the makings of a movie written all over it. So much so that it was released in 2010 under the name Animal Kingdom and took home a shipload of awards. And I’m still trying to figure out whether to call Kampp’s contributions performance, or to credit the Kuleshov Effect, in which a static closeup derives its meaning from the highly-charged images it’s juxtaposed against. Now streaming at the Digital Gym Cinema.2020. — S.M. ★★

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